Pioneer Physician Assistant Retires

Starr Strong blazed a new role for 21 years at Chelsea Health Center

Starr Strong

Starr with a baby

Physician assistant Starr Strong retires on May 1 after 21 years at the Chelsea Health Center. Robin Palmer, a former journalist who now does marketing at Gifford, sat down with Strong this week to get her reflections on her career and two decades of commitment to the Chelsea community.

CHELSEA – Starr Strong took a meandering path to health care.

Raised in Connecticut, she studied eastern religion at Beloit College in Wisconsin and went on to travel in India and Nepal and work a variety of jobs, including for a childhood lead prevention program in Massachusetts and counseling troubled teens.

A self-described hippie, wherever she went she found a cabin in the woods to live with her dog, usually with no electricity. She “played pioneer,” she said.

She contemplated a career in social work, but after traveling found herself drawn to a relatively new career – that of a physician assistant.

Despite a complete lack of experience in medicine, as a white person traveling in India and Nepal she was often called upon by villagers to help with illness, she said. “They bring you their wounds. They bring you their sickness. I found that I loved it.”

Duke University had started the first physician assistant program following the Vietnam War for returning medics looking to put their skills to work, Strong recalled. Wake Forest University in North Carolina was one of the schools to follow. Strong entered physician assistant school at Wake Forest in 1979.

Coming home to Vermont

Starr Strong

Starr with a patient in 1996

She came to Vermont in 1981 while in physician assistant school to do what the industry calls a clinical rotation – like an internship – with local ob/gyn Dr. Thurmond Knight and midwife Karen O’Dato. It was not her first experience in Vermont, however.

Strong calls growing up in Connecticut “a mistake.” “I knew that I was so supposed to be here,” she said.

Strong’s family came from Brookfield. As a child they would visit the family homestead several times a year. Strong recalls her mother telling at her the end of one trip when she was 5 or 6 that is time to go home. “But I am home” was Strong’s reply.

Strong is the sixth generation to own that Brookfield property, where she still lives with husband John Button and one of her two children, Dylan, 28. Twenty-four-year-old daughter Maylee lives in Chelsea.

When she first came home to that old farmhouse with no running water, Strong envisioned a job at Gifford in Randolph, but long-time hospital Chief Executive Officer Phil Levesque told her no, repeatedly.

“I knocked on Gifford’s door every year,” said Strong. She repeatedly heard that the Medical Staff just wasn’t ready for a physician assistant, and might never be.

The hospital had just one private practice nurse practitioner affiliated with it at the time. The concept of a physician assistant – now commonplace in the industry – was completely new.

Starr Strong

Starr in 1996

Strong went to work for Planned Parenthood for a dozen years. She worked mostly in Barre doing gynecological exams and talking about birth control. But still she knocked on the door.

The door to Gifford edges open
In early 1993, the door creaked ajar. The hospital agreed to trial Strong in Chelsea a day and a half a week alongside new physician Dr. George Terwilliger, who had replaced retiring physician Dr. Brewster Martin.

Strong was Gifford’s first physician assistant and the first female health care provider at the Chelsea Health Center.

Martin made sure Strong stuck.

“He was incredible,” she recalled. He introduced her around time, advocated for her and he came during many a lunch hour to the Route 110 health center to chat.

The duo formed a mentor-mentee relationship and a strong friendship. They’d save up stories and thoughts to share. They talked about suffering and loss, life and death, and whatever they found funny.

“He was the wisest person I’ve known in my life. It was quite a blessing and I don’t use that word very often,” said Strong.

What she remembers most was that he would ask her thoughts on a subject.

“He gave me confidence,” she said. “I had so much respect for him that him asking me what I thought was enormous.”

Starr Strong

Starr in 2008


Soon Strong was working at other Gifford health centers, including in Bethel, at the student health center at Vermont Technical College, in Randolph and recently in Berlin. Chelsea, however, has been a constant.

She promised Martin she would stay in Chelsea for 20 years. This year marks 21.

Just the right fit in Chelsea
Strong found a home at the Chelsea Health Center.

“Chelsea’s an old time family community and people are fiercely independent and have a lot of pride. If they don’t have anything, it doesn’t matter. It’s down to earth,” Strong said.

For a woman loath to “lipstick and high heels,” it was just perfect.

And like with Martin, she formed relationships there.

“Medicine is not just a science. Medicine is an art and it’s about relationships and it’s about developing relationships with people,” she said.

Those relationships have come with generations of patients and with co-workers like nurse Judy Alexander, who became the closest of friend.

“She just made me laugh. I could call her at 4 o’clock in the morning and she would be at my house at 4:30, and you don’t get that in life often.”

Starr Strong

Starr with friend and patient Judy Alexander in 2012

Alexander is also a patient of Strong’s – a patient who is in the very end stage of terminal cancer. Like so many of her patients, Strong has been at Alexander’s bedside.

“At the beginning of my career, I thought birthing was my ticket and then I took care of a dying person and found that that is really where the juice is,” she said, noting the courage one witnesses in illness and death.

Alexander’s illness and waiting for just the right new providers to join the Chelsea Health Center in her place have in part kept Strong working past that 20 years she promised Martin.

A new chapter
But now she is ready.

Strong is 62, struggles with pain caused from arthritis in her spine and is slowing down. “I don’t have that vitality anymore,” she said.

And she wants to be home. Her husband has been building a new house on that family homestead in Brookfield. “I want to be there to finish it, and have the time to move in.”

She wants to travel and ski and kayak and garden and make stained glass and spend more time with her 95-year-old mom.

She can do all this because of family medicine providers Dr. Amanda Hepler and physician assistant Rebecca Savidge. Like Strong did 21 years ago, they have joined the Chelsea Health Center.

Dr. Hepler comes from Maine and has a passion for rural medicine and Savidge is a Chelsea native. They’re skilled and compassionate and plan on staying for a very long time. Strong couldn’t be happier.

“Once patients meet them, they’re going to love them,” Strong said.

In fact, they’re so great to be around that Strong anticipates a few visits to Chelsea of her own.

“Now I’m going to be the lunchtime girl,” she said, thinking back to those lunches with the retired Martin.

Wish Strong well in her retirement and meet Dr. Hepler and Savidge at a May 1 open house being held from 4-6 p.m. at the Chelsea Health Center that is open to all.

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